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America’s Savior: Lincolnolatry’s Hidden Cost

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tags: Abraham Lincoln



Peter Laarman is a United Church of Christ minister and activist who recently retired as executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting in Los Angeles. He remains involved in numerous justice struggles, in particular a campaign known as Justice Not Jails that calls upon faith communities to critique and combat the system of racialized mass incarceration often referred to as The New Jim Crow.

I plead guilty right up front to once participating in the cult I intend to critique. I, too, have worshipped at the feet of the Great Emancipator, imbibing in my early youth the whole kit-and-caboodle of Lincolnian mythology.

My people were “Party of Lincoln” Wisconsin Republicans. We read our Carl Sandburg, we memorized the Gettysburg Address, and we identified with the rough-hewn Nobody who rose to become a real Somebody, almost godlike in his towering moral majesty. Sure, we were also fed the usual pap about George Washington’s flawless character, but our sense of who this Washington was remained distant and blurry. We already knew that GW’s story had been carefully burnished beyond credibility. E.g., we knew that the attributed line, “I cannot tell a lie,” was itself a lie.

But Mr. Lincoln was different. He was much closer to us in time, obviously: my immigrant great-grandparents were around to witness his rise, his struggle, and his martyrdom. And this rangy, rail-splitting Abe was down-to-earth in a way the alabaster Cincinnatus of Mt. Vernon could never be. We heard it said that Lincoln could tell a funny story; we later learned that he could also tell a bawdy story—and we liked him better on that account.

To mark this week when Lincoln’s Birthday is celebrated, The New York Times Book Review splashed a sketch of the stovepiped Great One on its cover and featured reviews by Jill Lepore and Drew Gilpin Faust (Fight Fiercely, Harvard!) of three new Lincoln books.

Lepore’s review of Martha Hodes’ Mourning Lincoln and Richard Wightman Fox’s Lincoln’s Body is exceptionally penetrating. My thinking here about Lincoln’s religious significance was triggered by the always-shrewd Lepore’s observation that Lincolnolatry remains very much alive AND that it still obscures our appreciation of the bottom-up revolution that made Lincoln do the one thing he didn’t particularly want to do: commit to the freedom of millions of enslaved human beings. ...

Read entire article at Religion Dispatches


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